Does remote working work? Now is the time to find out.

Does remote working work? Now is the time to find out.

By Sally Evans


Last week I attended an event on Health and Wellbeing at Work - probably one of the last events held at the NEC before our country wide close down.

I was pleased to attend a series of great talks from a variety of speakers, but the one talk that was heaving with interested attendees was the one on Remote Working – it was standing room only at the back. I guess we could all see what was coming.

The Policy Director from Nuffield Health gave an interesting presentation on his meta-analysis of studies that researched the effects of remote working vs office-based working. Sadly, only 22 studies could be included in his research, but the sample was a good size at over 7500 workers.

We listened with open ears and in excited anticipation of what these studies would tell us – should we shoot ahead with our smarter working plans? Should we offer flexible working as an attraction strategy for new talent? Would working from home increase productivity; address poor mental health; improve wellbeing and engagement? You name it, I suspect we were all hoping that his research would tell us the answers – but it didn’t.

What it did do though was raise lots of interesting questions about the impact of remote working, which I was going to blog about. But since we are now in an enforced ‘remote working’ environment, it seems the experiment has accelerated and so it may be more helpful to pass on some tips about how to optimise this big opportunity and really look after our team members and employees at this time.

So, the question is no longer ‘office working vs remote / home working: discuss’, but more a question of ‘how do I keep my team motivated and collaborating whilst we are all working remotely from each other?’

One of the results of the Nuffield study, was that there doesn’t seem to be a single study which has looked at the impact on the health of home workers. The academic response to this would be…’more needs to be researched in this area’. Well, here we are. I hope researchers and academics everywhere are considering this massive social experiment that is playing out across the globe.

But there were, however, some useful outcomes that emerged from the studies including a view that the offer of remote working has a positive impact on attrition in the workplace and a positive effect on employee’s perceptions of their work life balance.

The caveat to this though, is the importance of using technology carefully. This is an area that I have already noticed within my own home, with those I am isolating with. Micromanagement by technology and overuse of email as ways to communicate are just two ways in which the potential positives can quickly turn into unhelpful negatives.

A crucial condition that emerged as a prerequisite for successful remote working is the importance of autonomy. Nuffield’s’ meta-analysis results suggested that the greater the autonomy, the higher the chances of success on remote working. Though I would say that in my view, autonomy is an ingredient for success for high performing people, teams and engagement at all times. It was clear that micromanagement, albeit remotely, will cause failure, so the importance of being clear about the goals and deliverables of the remote worker, and then trusting them to get on and deliver, is important.

What also emerged from the metanalysis, were the areas that it would be helpful for leaders to consider when setting up the arrangements. If this is you, right now, then you may be interested in the following areas to focus on, and I have added in some of my own thoughts in terms of what seems to be emerging as some good practice:

1. Creating a workspace: Our home needs to be a place of recuperation and rest. How can our team members, create a separation between their workspace and their home, both physically and mentally? How can you encourage them to switch off and stay switched off at the appropriate times? Can you enable them to have a helpful routine that includes exercise, fresh air, a lunch break, a screen break?

2. Connectedness: Along with creating feelings of autonomy over our work, feeling connected to our organisation, our team and our purpose is equally important. Staying and being connected is absolutely required even more so, when your people are remote working. As a leader, what can you do to create a feeling of connectedness and common purpose? I am encouraging leaders I know to have virtual lunches using tech like Zoom or Group skype. Use this time to ask how people are doing and encouraging sharing of feelings and emotions. Crack a joke, have some fun. You are all in this together.

3. Clarity of contribution and celebrating little successes: The research suggested that some remote workers may start to distance themselves from the core team and their organisation, if their colleagues and the leader aren’t proactive in maintaining suitable contact. This sometimes happens when only one or two in a team work remotely and everyone else is in the office – that may not be the case in the coming weeks. How can you as a leader ensure your team members are clear about their contribution, and have the opportunity to feed in what they are achieving? Does their job require some temporary job redesign? Have an open conversation about what can reasonably be achieved during this time and what is ok to stop doing, for now. Can they think of ways in which to deliver their service differently?

Maybe, ask them to share what challenges have they overcome this week? What strengths are they using? What little success should we, as a team, celebrate this week?

4. Thrive and flourish: What we know is that we are all unique individuals and that people don’t all receive information or get their energy in a common or unified way. Some people will be pre-disposed to remote or home working and some people will hate it and struggle. The research suggested that those higher on the ‘openness’ scale are more likely to adapt to remote working, but as leaders we all need to watch out for those with traits where remote working from colleagues won’t fit their preferences.

For example, those prone to ruminate, will have difficulty with remote working. You don’t have to qualify as a psychologist or run psychometrics to understand your people better in this situation, but just spend time listening and observing how they are. What’s working for them? What’s hard for them? How can you and others help? What ideas do they have? Monitor how your team are interacting with each other and whether you need to help more with connectivity and collaboration.

5. Maintaining (even improving?) team performance: Nuffield’s analysis showed that there were only three suitable studies that have researched whether productivity improves as a result of remote or home working and all the results are pretty much inconclusive. But, we are where we are right now and I wonder if leaders could take up this challenge: How can you create an environment, albeit virtual, where team creativity increases; where collaboration increases; where wellbeing and team support thrives; where your team all use their strengths?

We know that when people operate from a place of fear or mistrust, their brain capacity is significantly reduced. But if people operate from a place of hope, optimism and positivity, their capacity to be creative, solve problems and approach challenges openly is significantly enhanced (see Barbara Frederickson’s research in her book ‘Positivity’). As a leader, you don’t have to have all the answers to these questions, but you could ask your team their views and get them engaged in ways to increase team support, celebrate successes and focus on strengths during this coming challenging few months. You never know, your team performance could sky rocket during this period.

So, for good or for ill, remote working is in, big time, and it is incumbent on us leaders to facilitate it and support both our team members with their wellbeing during this time, and our organisation as we manage service delivery and performance.

Will this require a change to your leadership behaviours? If you have been creating and cultivating a team environment of autonomy, collaboration, motivation, compassion and curiosity, then no. If not, now is the time to pause and reflect on the type of leader you now want to be.


Sally is the Founder of LifeBuddy.

She is an Organisational Development consultant and is a Practitioner with the Association for Business Psychology.